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A Subjective Review of All My Sketchbooks

My art journey has been marked by an ongoing sketchbook practice. In fact, I've painted on sketchbooks more than canvasses. Painting on canvasses (no matter the size) was a more formal affair and needed more mental prep. There was also certain amount of pressure and expectation for me to produce something good whenever I painted on a canvas. On the other hand, sketchbooks were a casual, nonintimidating way to get a couple of hours of quiet art time, a safe space where I could make mistakes and start over. Most artists used sketchbooks as a sort of visual journal. I, on the other hand, initially started using sketchbooks as a learning space, where I could hone in basic painting and drawing skills. As time went by, I used sketchbooks as way to work out ideas for larger paintings or just for doodling. However, I wouldn't discount the value of doodling. I actually sold a few prints from some rough sketches I had done. In fact, one customer told me that she actually liked the rough sketch more than the actual finished piece that I made for her.


As I look nostalgically through my sketchbooks, I not only can chart my progress over time, but I can even detect the kind of mood I was in. I think that's why I like looking through my sketchbooks every now and then. They take me back to a relatively simpler time in my life, especially my first few sketchbooks, when I whiled away many hours painting. Sketchbooks were my happy place.


I'm not a hoarder by nature, and as much as I love the feel of a new sketchbook, I actually have to finish the one I'm working on (no matter how long that would take) before I even think of purchasing another one. However, that's not to say I didn't have more than one sketchbook at a time. Some were donated to me by other people, and after I became more comfortable with my art practice, and needed to work on different size illustrations I would indulge myself by buying two sketchbooks at a time (a smaller pocket size one for informal, quick practices, and a larger one for more finished pieces). So many of my sketchbooks overlapped in terms of the timeline. However, when I started my art journey I was a new mother and since then my life has taken quite a few turns and so I haven't been able to consistently maintain a daily sketchbook routine. Over the last 4 years I've accumulated a mere ten or twelve sketchbooks, of varying sizes, paper textures and weight, a dismally low number compared with other artists. But every sketchbook I have is precious to me and reminds of a particular phase of my life, what I was doing, where I was, and even how I felt at the time.


I thought I would do a very subjective review of all my sketchbooks, because I will be reviewing not only the physical dimensions and the paper quality but I will also talk about how each sketchbook was a particular milestone in my creative journey. Some had great pieces in them, some not so much, and all had a combination of the various tutorials and classes I took and my own original work.


1- Crawford and Black Field Sketch Pad, spiralbound (August 2017 - January 2018)


Size: A4

Number of sheets: 30

Type of paper: High-quality cartridge paper, white

Weight: 130gsm

Price: Quite cheap, less than £5

This was my first ever sketchbook. I bought it in a small bookstore in Surrey, England around 2015 when I had decided I wanted to learn how to draw. It was not the best quality paper, just slightly thicker than printer paper, with a tendency to smudge quite a bit, because my first sketches on it were with graphite pencils and there were finger stains all over. However, I think I did a few sketches and then shoved into a drawer for the next couple of years. I didn't know anything about paper weight or quality and or what types of mediums to use on what surface, so when I pulled it out again in 2017, the first ever painting I did on it was an acrylic one. The paper buckled like crazy, but I ended up using it for a lot of pen sketches, and specifically for the Inktober 2017 challenge. It didn't hold up well with pen either but I was still learning at the time so the paper quality didn't matter that much.


I love this sketchbook because not only did it mark the beginning of my art journey, it also came to be known as my Inktober sketchbook, as I did quite a few pen sketches on it that I'm actually proud of. It's where I developed a love and a keen eye for detail.


2- Pentalic Aqua Journal - January 2018 - March 2018


Size: 5 in x 8 in

Number of pages: 48

Type of paper: 100% cotton, white, cold press, acid free, very textured

Weight: 140 lbs (300gsm)

Price: High, almost $30 on Amazon.

I quickly moved on to the fancy stuff. At the time, I had started following a few artists and illustrators on social media and a few of them were raving about Pentalic Aqua Journal, with good reason. In terms of quality, this is one of best out there, which explains the high price point. The paper was the perfect thickness for watercolor, gouache, acrylic and pen and ink, the paper was white, and it was a convenient size with over 48 pages. As you can ses from the photos above, the paper had a lot of "toothiness", little bumps and ridges, whihc is the perfect texture for watercolors, in my opinion. The binding did come unstuck a little when I opened it to the first page. However, that was more my mistake than a shortcoming of the sketchbook. I should have been more careful as the very first page should be opened partially since typically you shouldn't paint on it. Other than that, it was very good. This sketchbook marked my transition to watercolors where I stumbled a little bit with using too much (I was still on acrylics mode) but the paper took the extra water and pigment very well. I also did a few pretty good acrylic sketches. All in all, it was a wonderful sketchbook where I learnt to layer pen over watercolors for a more dynamic, illustrative feel. This sketchbook and the one before it bring back strong memories of my life in Egypt, where I would spend hours with my sketchbook propped on my lap, and my art supplies on a side table, painting while watching TV, and trying to keep my daughter (who was almost 2 years old from knocking down my jar of water).


3- Strathmore Mixed Media 400 Series: March 2018 - September 2018.


Size: 11 in x 14 in

Number of sheets: 15

Type of paper: Vellum, white

Weight: 184 lbs (300gsm)

Price: Mid-range


This sketchbook is giving me Dubai vibes. It was gifted to me by my brother when I spent a couple of months in Dubai. He's had it, lying in a drawer somewhere, along with a other art materials like a few tubes of acrylic paint and brushes, that he didn't use anymore because he'd moved on to digital arts. The paper was not textured enough, (as it was meant for mixed media) and I like my watercolor paper really textured. But for acrylics it wasn't bad. It was a good substitute for a stretched canvas and allowed me to experiment with slightly larger acrylic paintings. I did not prep it with gesso before hand, and it was still good. The paper was thick enough to handle multiple layers of acrylic paint as there were a few pieces where I laid it on pretty thick and even used a palette knife. As for watercolors, I tend to go pretty loose, not too much fine details, so I found the relatively smooth surface less than ideal. I like my watercolor sketchbooks to have a really rough texture. Also, I found it frayed in some places when I tried to lift the watercolor pigment with a "thirsty" brush. But that could have been because I did it multiple times in the same spot. All in all, I might not ever purchase it but it served my purpose at the time seeing it was a gift. I remember many evenings, painting on my mother's coffee table in the living room, much to my mother's dismay).


4- Winsor and Newton Watercolor Paper Block: April 2018 - October 2018


Size: 7 in x 10 in

Number of sheets: 20

Type of paper: 100% cotton, white, cold press

Weight: 140 lbs (300gsm)

Price: Around $40.

This one was slightly more expensive. I bought mine from an art store in Dubai, but in other places, I imagine it would go for not less than $30. This was a good size for my smaller watercolor studies. It came in a block form where all the sheets were glued together on all sides and once you've finished a painting, there is an unglued section at the top where you can peel it off. The paper had enough texture to it that it could handle layers of water and pigment without buckling. I used this sketchbook mostly during my last few months in Egypt, and it lasted me for another few months after I moved to Ireland.


5- Stillman & Birn, Beta Series, Softcover Edition, Mixed Media: October 2018 - August 2019


Size: 8 in x 10 in

Number of sheets: 26 sheets (52 pages)

Type of paper: 100% cotton, white, cold press

Weight: 270 gsm

Price: Around $32 on Amazon.

I purchased this (along with my first ever Moleskine watercolor sketchbook) on Amazon when I was living in Ireland. The size was good for me and I wanted a portrait orientation sketchbook, but otherwise, I wasn't really impressed with the texture of the paper. Like the Strathmore, this was for mixed media and the surface was extremely smooth which might be good for gouache (which is what I mostly used it for) but I found it annoying to apply watercolors. No wonder it took me almost a whole year to fill it up, I kept reaching for my other sketchbook at the time....


6- Moleskine Art Collection Watercolor Album, Hardcover: October 2018 - December 2019

Size: 5 in x 8 in

Number of sheets: 36 sheets (72 pages)

Type of paper: Acid free, white, cold press

Weight: 200 gsm

Price: Around $23 on Amazon.

This has become a staple for me. While the paper is not as thick or textured as the Pentalic Aqua Journal, it has enough "teeth" to work with and it's more affordable. The smaller size is perfect for me when I just want to doodle. I've bought this sketchbook quite often, and in different sizes as well. While I started this sketchbook in Ireland, for me it very much symbolized the year and a half that I later spent in Dubai. This sketchbook and the following two sketchbooks marked one of the toughest periods of my life. When my life was in chaos, I am reminded of the peace and quiet that these sketchbooks gave me as I spent many afternoons painting while watching The Handmaid's Tale or another beloved TV show on my laptop.


7- Canson XL Mix Media, spiral: February 2019 - January 2020


Size:A4, 8.5 in x 11.75 in

Number of sheets: 30

Type of paper: Medium texture, cotton, cold press, white, perforated edges

Weight: 300 gsm

Price: Around $12 on Amazon

Another favorite of mine. Not only was the texture divine (quite rough, even though it's marketed as medium texture), it's also one of the most affordable sketchbooks out there, given the paper weight, quality, size and number of sheets. This was probably the first sketchbook I bought after I moved back to Dubai and the relatively low price was appealing given that I was unemployed at the time. I think I had the most fun with this sketchbook because I remember, despite the upheavals in my life at the time, I really enjoyed almost every painting I did on it. There was a series of four watercolor animal portraits (with gouache backgrounds) based on a Skillshare class by Amarilys Henderson that I particularly enjoyed. Naturally, it handled watercolors pretty well, but I also did a couple of acrylic pieces where I applied no less than 4 or 5 layers of paint and even gesso. The paper texture was also really good with gouache. I even did quick pastel sketch, (a study of a much larger acrylic painting of Frida Kahlo).


8- Frederix Canvas Pad: April 2019 - October 2019


Size: 12 in x 16 in

Number of sheets: 10

Type of paper: cotton canvas, double primed with gesso, medium texture, white

Price: Around $53 on Amazon (but I bought them at a local art store in Dubai)

I went on an art supply shopping spree once in Dubai with a friend, because I had some extra money. I bought this canvas pad, some brush markers and other stuff. I don't exactly remember how much this was but it was definitely cheaper than the Amazon price. I loved using this, as it allowed me to experiment without the feeling of intimidation I would get if I were working on a larger stretched canvas or a canvas board. Since they were just sheets and it functioned like a sketchbook, I felt free to make mistakes but it also provided the perfect surface for more finished pieces. In fact, I did quite a few acrylic paintings on this sketchbook which I then carefully removed from the pad (all the sheets were glued at the top but easily removable) and had them mounted on wooden boards at my local at supply store (see above images). At the time, I was showing my work at a local online gallery and these paintings made up the bulk of my portfolio. The actual paintings decorated my mother's living room.


9- Moleskine Watercolor Album, Hardcover, A3: January 2020 - June 2020


A3, landscape

Number of sheets: 60 pages

Type of paper: Acid free, white, cold press

Weight: 200 gsm

Price: Around $30 on Amazon. I'm not sure if I bought this on Amazon or locally.

I call this my "pandemic" sketchbook as I used it primarily during the first few months of the pandemic. I initially bought it because I wanted to experiment with looser larger watercolor paintings and I was starting to feel limited by the smaller surface area of my previous sketchbooks. Also, at the time, this was the only sketchbook I had, (I didn't have a spare smaller sketchbook lying around) as I wanted to force myself out of my comfort zone and just go bigger with every painting. I must say, as intimidated as I was by the larger size, I quickly took to it, and ended up really enjoying it. I was looser with my brushstrokes, less precious, and generally felt more free to make mistakes. It has the same paper quality as my other Moleskine sketchbooks so I won't review it again. I did a few acrylic paintings as well on it, and because of the larger surface area I felt I was working on a canvas. During that particularly difficult year (especially the first 6 months), this sketchbook was an escape into another world for me.


10 - Marabou Mixed Media A5, spiral bound, landscape: July 2020 - December 2020


Size: A5, 5.8 in 8.3 in

Number of sheets: 32

Type of paper: Acid free, white, cold press, light-resistant

Weight: 300 gsm

Price: Around £13 on https://www.greatart.co.uk/. Although I bought this from Bookworld in Dubai.

This is my first Canada sketchbook. I bought it in Dubai just before I moved to Canada. I remember the first couple of weeks, when I had to quarantine in our barely furnished apartment, I would spend many evenings painting on this sketchbook after putting my daughter to bed. It's for mixed media, 300 gsm and therefore was amazing with watercolors. However, unlike the Moleskine or Pentalic sketchbooks, the rough paper texture was only on one side of the sheet, so I actually got 32 uses out of it and not the 64 pages. But for a very affordable price I was very impressed with the paper quality and also the user friendly spiral binding.


One sketchbook that I didn't mention in the list above was a Phoenix Acrylic Canvas Pad I bought years ago in Egypt, when I started experimenting with acrylics. I don't have a lot of photos of the paintings I made in it but there is this one painting that I'm actually proud of. Its based on a reference image that showed up on my Windows screensaver, of a boat reflected on a very still lake in Ski, Akershus, Fylke, Norway. I did a pen sketch of it for Inktober 2017 (see above) and I loved the light in the image so much I decided to try and capture it in acrylics. I didn't quite get there but I like the final result.

Of course, there are many other painting surfaces I bought over the years: canvasses (boards, panels and stretched, all primed with gesso). I've even recycled old canvas paintings by covering them with a couple of layers of gesso and painting over them again. I recommend doing that, if, like me, you like a lot of texture in your paintings and saving money.


However, out of all the sketchbooks that I've tried, I must say the ones I keep coming back to (based on quality, and price) are my Moleskine watercolor album, 5in x 8in (I just finished one in the second half of 2021 and I bought another one that I will start this year); and the Canson XL, A4 for larger illustrations. I tend to paint loosely with watercolors which is why I like my paper to have as many ridges and pits as possible to aid with the granulation of the colors. For more a more realist, detail-orientated style of watercolor painting, a smoother texture (hot press) is recommended. However, the Canson sketchbook that I bought here in Canada from my local art supply store is different from the one I bought in Dubai. This one is marketed for watercolor, it's cold press, has a much smoother fine grain paper texture than the Dubai one. So if texture is important to you make sure you check whether it's cold press (rougher, "toothier" texture) or hot press (much smoother).


Whenever you are feeling uninspired, just take out your old sketchbooks and flip through them. They will remind you of how far you've come in your creative journey, and motivate you to keep going. Every sketch and illustration has a story attached to it, and just like a photo album, looking through old sketches is like recalling certain milestones in your life and reminding you that you still have a lot of stories inside you.







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